Firstly I’d like to acknowledge Sue Langley of The Langley Group in Sydney for much of the content underpinning this post. I was privileged to be on her webinar on this topic the other night.
We are living in stressful times for sure.
When we hear the word “stress” it pretty much always has a negative connotation. Considering stress brings to mind things like hyper-stimulation, brain-fry aka “cognitive overactivity”, pressure. In other words, nothing all that positive there!
But in reality what we’re talking about in this context is actually more accurately labeled “distress” rather than stress per se. There’s the harmful, debilitating stress – distress, which if experienced over a long period of time, will lead to burnout and its raft of negative impacts on our body and mind.
There’s also the positive and helpful kind of stress and this is something that isn’t much talked about. It’s called “eustress”.
Believe it or not, we actually need a certain, optimal amount of pressure or stress to motivate us to get things done, to provide focus and concentration and to perform well.
Too little stress and we’re bored, unmotivated, lethargic and dissatisfied. Too much – well we know what that leads to… exhaustion, overwhelm, irrational thinking and worse. The sweet spot sees us using our brain well for enhanced creativity, rational problem-solving, to make progress and perform well.
Most of us work better under a bit of pressure and need the odd deadline to keep us on the straight and narrow.
Also, we actually need stress or pressure to help us when we’re stepping up out of our comfort zone, learning or developing our abilities. Improving in a sport, doing something new or putting yourself out there to overcome your nerves to speak in public requires guts, grit and risk – these feel stressful.
Two way street
Something interesting to be aware of is that how we perceive stress will actually have an impact on how it affects us. If we believe stress to be something that’s harmful to us, it will be. If we believe it to be something we can harness and use, then it will be.
Interestingly stress is something we can feel in our body, and so if we can be aware of the early warning signs of stress in our physicality, then we have a better chance of catching it early and dealing with it before it causes too many problems. We’ll also be more able to harness and utilise its benefits. How we respond, will influence how we experience stress.
Juggling multiple priorities and competing demands, conflict of various kinds, time pressure and uncertainty – these are what most commonly stress people out, so it’s no wonder many of us are feeling somewhat stressed in this current most uncertain of times! Pressure of various kinds and the uncertain conditions created by Covid-19 are profoundly affecting many of us.
We can throw up our hands, wail and give in to the helplessness and stress we feel or we can learn more about stress and how to interact with it in more positive ways.
We feel stress because we care
A good place to start with our understanding, and something interesting to consider is that we feel stressed when we feel pressure around things we care about. If something isn’t important to us and we don’t care about it, we’ll be less likely to be stressed about it. Of course this can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the way we look at it.
Alternative stress reponses
Fight, flight or freeze are what we mostly do in the face of a stressful situation. And if we don’t take the time to learn more about how to use stress constructively, we are stuck with these limited (and rather ineffectual) responses.
However, we can learn different ways to use stress so that it benefits us.
Instead of fight, flight or freeze we have other options…
How about “tend and befriend?”
This is something many people (myself included) have, sometimes unconsciously, been doing during this pandemic. Reaching out to connect or bond with people or offer help has an enormous benefit in times of stress. Feeling connected to others – even over Zoom or an old fashioned phone call can be immensely comforting and helpful – both for you and for them. I think that for many of us, this is a natural reaction to stress and it’s so easy to do. Ironically I have probably felt more connected to a wider range of people during lockdown than I have during other recent times, and it seems that this is true for many of the people I have spoken to lately. Let’s use our innate human desire to reach out to others even more now we know how beneficial it is.
As well as this, we can adopt a “challenge” stress response. This is where we DO something. Whether it’s something tangible or active, or just writing a list to create some sense of order and control, this is an important stress-reduction technique. Taking some form of action is our body’s way of telling our brain that we can actually do something. And maybe doing just one thing can make all the difference. String a few of those one things together and pretty soon you start to gain a greater sense of control and develop a belief in your ability to shape your outcomes, at least to a certain extent.
3 key steps to use stress productively
1/ Stop and acknowledge where you are feeling stress in your body
2/ Welcome it by realising that the stress you’re feeling is because you care about the thing that’s making you feel stressed
3/ Use the energy that the stress is giving you. Channel it into something positive and useful.